Scarlet Sisters: Van Van and the Gold Piano

Gary Gimmestad, composer and arranger for the Scarlet Sisters Everleigh, has agreed to write a behind the scenes blog.  We are thrilled to have Gary share his insists on the creation of the new work.  Scarlet Sisters Everleigh opens November 8 at the Berger Park Coach House Theater.

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by Gary Gimmestad

The most renowned piece of furniture in the Everleigh Club was a little piano covered in gold leaf – the primary symbol of the club’s gaudy opulence. Ada dearly loved the piano and even explained her refusal to marry a suitor because of his dislike of the piano.

When the sisters approached the Kimball Piano Company with their request to commission a gold-covered piano, the owner, William Wallace Kimball, recognized the club’s Levee district address and immediately saw through the lie about the sisters’ proposed “private conservatory of music” and turned them down, fearing a reflection on his company’s reputation. They succeeded with a dealer in new York who, presumably, didn’t know the meaning of their address.

It’s clear that the sisters valued the gold piano more for the impression of extravagance it conveyed than for its function as a musical instrument.The principal pianist at the club, a wavy-haired dandy named Vanderpool Vanderpool (Van Van), was hired to fill in the gaps in the club’s more impressive orchestral programming (more on that below). He’d furtively wander from room to room (they all had pianos), assess the situation, play a bit to see if he was wanted and, if not, slink off.

One of Van Van’s roles as “professor” was to provide musical cues to goings-on in the club. If he launched into “I’d Leave My Happy Home for You” the butterflies knew that either Ada or Minna were coming. “She Was Bred in Old Kentucky” was a cue to tread lightly – one of the sisters was in a bad mood.

The repertoire was, of course, drawn from the catalog of popular tunes of the day. In fact, the Everleigh Club provided an excellent marketing tool for music publishers. Van Van made a little extra from patrons’ tips but his weekly salary got its biggest boost from plugging the latest tunes – “royalty” songs – an early example of “payola” in the music industry.

The era’s close proximity to the Civil War and slavery is amply illustrated in the sheet music of the time. Publishers always included samples of other offerings on the inside covers and back pages. It’s shocking (but not surprising) to encounter a big banner announcing in elaborate script a new collection of “Coon Songs.” That genre was a significant part of the repertoire that was played at the Everleigh Club and of the all of the Levee’s bawdy houses. But the same music could be found in piano benches and parlors of homes anywhere in the country.

The Everleigh Club was also renowned for its three string orchestras with harps – a musical lavishness which outshone the more pedestrian offerings of the other houses’ which employed only pianos and banjos (the banjo was the most popular instrument in the Levee). Van Van was in the curious predicament of having the most lucrative gig in the Levee while his role as musician was relegated to a position which got little respect. Charles Washburn sums it up in his book on the club titled “Come Into My Parlor.”

They paid the professor $50 a week and his “cakes” – the food. He rang the time-clock at ten at night and he was often compelled to pound away as late as seven in the morning. The best he received from the house itself was his weekly wage and a well-tuned piano for which he was grateful . . . The professor was a thing apart from the world in which he toiled. When the curfew rang he disappeared completely. “Forget the professor,” said Minna. “What made you bring him up in the first place?”

Ouch!

About Gary Gimmestad

Easter with Gary & JohnGary Gimmestad, a native Minnesotan, was delighted to reconnect with one-time Minnesotans Jason and Rob and Three Cat Productions to compose and record music for the fall production of Joint Attention.  Gary has a long history in theater and music including several projects with Three Cat’s own Rob Dorn. Rob and Gary collaborated on Rob’s solo CD, I’m Wishing and on the dozens of arrangements they co-created for the vocal group Three Hits and a Miss. Gary has also performed and toured as pianist and music director for a number of shows including Ain’t Misbehavin’, 1940s Radio Hour, Little Shop of Horrors, Forever Plaid and many others. Gary recently launched his own business (Dal segno Music Services, LLC) which offers music preparation services as well as instruction in Finale music notation software. Gary is currently working with singer / songwriter Tom Lieberman (www.liebermania.com) on his children’s theater project featuring a ukulele puppet named Luke the Uke and his sidekicks Amanda Lynn and Duke. And Gary is eagerly looking forward to future collaborations with Three Cat!